Guess what, everybody! Labour are going to approach the next election much how Ronald Reagan approached the 1980 Presidential one: by asking voters “are you better off than you were four years ago?” That’s what they were telling the papers in advance of Ed Balls’ speech this morning. That’s what they want us, the people, to know.
But didn’t we actually know it already? It’s been obvious for a while that Labour will ask the Reagan Question in 2015. Not only do most General Election campaigns boil down to something like it, but Ed Miliband has been talking about the “squeezed middle” ever since he ascended to his party’s throne. The Labour leader was, to his credit, quick to identify the gap between the economy’s prospects and our wallets’.
Balls’ speech, which can be read here, is effectively more of the same – but the shadow chancellor is, it must be said, better than his leader at weaponising the issues. Like any good scion of Brown, he knows how to extrapolate dividing lines from one or two choice factoids. Today’s new one was that this Parliament has, apparently, seen the biggest fall in wages of any since 1874. And so the Tory toffs are out to cripple everyone who isn’t rich. And Labour are the only party who will stand up for the… blah, blah, blah.
It is, again like Brown, utterly shameless. Balls is right that living standards are under persistent and particular stress – almost any Tory would agree with him about that. But what he doesn’t mention is that at least some of this pre-dates even the Crash. Nor does he have anything new or persuasive to say about the Labour alternative. The afternoon is too short to enumerate the failings of the Opposition’s past and present economic policies, so I will simply link to my posts on their fiscal plan, their welfare policy and their business policy for our “Pinning Down Miliband” series.
In fact, Balls is so shameless that he even attacks the Tory leadership for Tory policies that, erm, aren’t actually Tory policies. Specifically, he cites calls – as yet unmet – for Osborne to reduce the top rate of income tax further, from 45p to 40p: “Having already cut taxes for millionaires in this Parliament, they’re champing at the bit to do it again.” And he also mentions reports of Oliver Letwin’s behind-closed-doors support for a flat tax rate: “That means lower taxes for the richest and higher taxes for everyone else.”
Attacks such as these, on policies-that-aren’t, are pernicious. They were pernicious when the Tories did them – topically enough, over a “death tax” – at the last election. They are pernicious when Ed Balls does them now. It’s generally just another form of caricature. “Forget what’s in their manifesto, what my opponents really want to do is this. Vote for me.”
That said, while we’re on the subject of things said behind closed doors: Balls was, as recently as last year, urging Miliband to “keep his options open” when it came to an EU Referendum. Yet today he lambasted the Tories for “flirting with exit from the European Union” for offering that very same referendum. Don’t vote for him.